Data tells an important story. This leader embraced it to drive positive change!


Throughout my rise into Executive Leadership ranks, I often attended leadership development programs. You know the ones where you sit in a classroom for a day? Learning what kind of leader you are, what has made you the leader you are, share knowledge and ideas about what kind of leader you should be, and acquire behaviours to become that kind of leader.

The question that always stirs in me after these courses is the question I believe is missing from so much of the leadership development programs; “What kind of leader do you want to be?” namely “What is my brand?” what is my “leadership intent”.

While exploring the answers to the leadership questions I posed to myself, I have found my leadership style and use it daily to guide my behaviours. I am open and transparent with my team regarding my brand and use this to keep myself accountable as a leader. My leadership intentions are “know your people”, “assume good intent” and “work from a place of trust”. Unbeknown to be during my progression through the leadership ranks, these characteristics have served me well and strengthened my relationships with teams I work with. Particularly more recently when I started a new executive role in a workplace with an absence rate more than double the average for like kind businesses.

When I started my new role, something that stood out for me was the introduction I was provided on my first day. I was walked around the floor and introduced to my team as a level not a person. This was the first cultural red flag for me. I like to know who my staff members are individually, not as a blanket group of ‘subordinates’ who are defined by a level. I noted the unrest this evoked in me so took it upon myself to sit with each of my 63 team mates to really get to know who they are and share who I am with them. This helped to open communication lines and get to know each other. It wasn’t a quick process but one I worked hard on each day to develop. My strategies ranged from hot desking with the different teams for a week at a time, taking opportunities to have staff teach me things I needed to know and treating them all as SME’s in their fields. This assisted with building trust with me and my team.

Throughout my first month, absence was constantly raised at executive meetings. We were provided high level data on absence and this was what was used to report how poorly we were performing. I wasn’t satisfied with this as I didn’t feel it was a true indicator of the situation within my team based on my observations. I decided I would do my own data trending and obtained absence data from the HR team monthly and developed my own spreadsheet to capture trends. What I found helped guide conversations with specific staff, as opposed to a blanket message that the entire team was taking too much leave. In actuality a pocket of staff where taking the bulk of the leave and the rest of the team where picking up the slack – no wonder the bulk generalised message was not stomached well on the floor.

My approach based on my own data analysis regarding attendance in my area was identifying which absences were avoidable and which were unavoidable. While some attempts were made to estimate the proportion of avoidable absence, there was generally little success in this endeavor. Fundamental to this is how absence should be measured and what types of absence should be measured. Particularly in relation to the productivity impacts of employee absence. I found that the data within the genealised report was negatively skewed by long term or compensable leave which one could argue is out of the area’s control. Regardless of the interventions put in place on the floor the data will always trend upwards.

When analyzing the data with relation to avoidable and unavoidable absences the data tells a different, more accurate story. Unavoidable absence was driven by factors relating to the employee's ability to attend work and is, by definition, not controllable by the employee (employees will become ill or experience family circumstances requiring their presence at home). As a consequence, the workplace can do little to influence this type of absence. The top 4% of absence data was derived from compensable or unavoidable leave. This equated to 40% of the entire sections leave days over the last 12 month period.

Avoidable absence, on the other hand, is driven by factors relating to the employee's ability to attend work as well as their motivation and can be influenced, to some degree, by the workplace. This is the area of focus for me and my teams. Additionally, I chunked the data down and worked in 3 monthly increments as this is a more accurate measure for the operational environment. Focusing on avoidable absence data I noted that the position on the floor was actually a positive one and attendance had improved across the floor by 21% over the measured three month period.

Feeling empowered by the data and the story it told, I analyzed the data further to see if I could identify further trends to assist in targeting conversations with staff and looking at working with each person flexibly to suit their own needs. From the data I was able to establish was that Tuesdays were the most taken day of leave in the last three months, I further noted leave was higher amongst those team members who had caring responsibilities – a potential area of focus for flexible work arrangements. Interestingly I noted that teams that had high annual leave balances also took the most sick leave – a flag for potential burnout. This data helped to guide conversations with staff about how we could work together to improve their attendance but also achieve work life balance – a plan tailored to them alone.

When looking for flexible ways to manage attendance within the section, I was very cognisant to avoid creating or reinforce a culture where staff feels the pressure to report to work even when they are not in a fit state to do so. When dealing with non‐attendance the main issues I considered were;

  • Understanding the EA of the work environment
  • The instances and pattern of non-attendance. The employee’s attendance record can provide historical information – and indicate a trigger for collaborative, solution focused discussion.
  • Whether there is an underlying medical or health problem that requires investigation, treatment and a return to work plan and support.
  • The nature of working relationships, the clarity of job roles and responsibilities and the quality of other working conditions.
  • Talk to staff with motivational issues to see how I can help them and work with them to come up with a solution that suited them individually
  • Changes to advising managers of absence, only a phone call from the employee directly to their manager when unable to attend work, a follow up meeting will also be help with the employee upon their return to work to undertake a wellness check-in and to brief them on work loading and priorities.
  • Through discussion and data analysis, it is evident that a large number of employees who work in the area have caring requirements.  I proposed that the wellness room be made available to staff if the carer’s room is unavailable or if they require specific equipment which is difficult to move between floors.
  • Pilot a work from home arrangement for those parents who have school age children, whose children have been excluded from school, but need minimal care.
  • Granting access for all staff to be able to work from home if required (excluding those on performance plans)
  • Fitness for Duty assessments are being used more regularly for those staff that meet the requirements under the public service regulations. This will assist the employee and workplace better manage staff that have pre-existing or work related injuries.
  • Team Leaders and Managers will continue to work with teams to encourage attendance where safe to do so even if it is to approve a later start time – as once staff got to work they felt supported enough to stay. 
  • Worked with HR team to facilitate a safe work environment for employees who suffer chronic illness or injury.
  • Leaders are provided fortnightly updates through face to face meetings with the HR on the management of employees who are on compensation leave to ensure they are supported in their recovery and return to employment.  If it is identified that these people cannot return to work then work to assist staff seeking suitable duties.
  • Regular reward and recognition within meetings to help staff feel valued and empowered at work.
  • Greater communication from leadership team of key messages and directions to operational staff. Initiatives as part of this are:  
    • Weekly newsletter is being sent each Monday providing specific updates on performance results, activities and initiatives across the area,
    • An Issues Register to provide an alternate mechanisms for staff to provide suggestionson  business improvements etc.
    • Leadership staff attending team meetings to better understands the operational issues impacting on the teams and will continue to do the same.
    • Feedback workshopping and working groups with all staff to understand any motivational issues or work loading pressures they are facing.
    • Strengthening bonds: Fortnightly drinks‘n’nibbles which are monitored executive staff to ensure the responsible use of alcohol
    • Ensuring staff are taking breaks and using extra leave or annual leave when in excess.

Whether you have a large or small team, it is vital to create a healthy atmosphere where people can be open about their feelings and needs knowing they will be heard and assisted based on their needs not a blanket and generic one size fits all approach. If doubts and fears are suppressed, they can weigh heavily on the team members and can be a distraction that can impact performance and attendance. When staff feel trusted and heard, they are easier to manage as they feel a sense of belonging and want to work from a place of trust and good intention